During these last days of Lent, the Church opens for us the Gospel of Saint John, the divine and mystic Gospel, the Gospel that, on every page, shines with the brightness of Christ’s divinity. The Lenten series of Johannine gospels are directed, first of all, to the catechumens, men and women in the last stages of preparation for the mysteries of initiation that will be celebrated in the night of Pascha. The same Gospels are addressed to the penitents, men and women who, having fallen, seek to rise again, washed in the pure water of the Spirit, and infused anew with the life-giving Blood of the Lamb. The Lenten liturgy is profitable to us only insofar as we identify inwardly with the catechumens and penitents, only insofar as we walk with them towards the mysteries of regeneration and reconciliation that ever flow from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.
On Friday of the Third Week of Lent we heard the promise of living water made by Christ to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:14). Each of us is the Samaritan woman; to each of us is disclosed the mystery of the thirst of Christ and to each of us is promised the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).
On Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent we witnessed the drama of the man born blind to whom Christ gave sight, light, and new life (Jn 9:11). Each of us is that man born blind; to each of us is promised and given the gladsome light of Christ.
Today, we follow a very human Christ, a tender and weeping Christ, to the tomb of one greatly loved (Jn 11:34-35). It is four days since the burial of Lazarus; already his body has begun to stink. Each of us is that stinking corpse, bound tightly in the shroud, and belonging already to the darkness of the netherworld.
Listen with the catechumen’s eager ears to the glorious promises of Ezekiel’s prophecy! “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ez 37:12-14). These promises, fulfilled once in the resurrection of Lazarus, are fulfilled again and again in the life of the Church, and principally in the night of Resurrection, in the great baptismal Vigil that Saint Augustine calls the “mother of all vigils.”
Three things are promised, three things are given to every Lazarus of every age and of every place: the resurrection from the grave, the experience of the Risen Christ, Lord of Life and Victor over death, and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. What was promised by the mouth of the prophet is fulfilled in Christ. What is fulfilled in Christ the Head is actualized again and again for the members of His Body in the mysteries (sacraments) of the Church. So often as Lazarus is baptized, chrismated, nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ, reconciled and healed there is even now triumph over the grave and the return from corruption, there is even now the experience of Christ the Lord of Life in the face of death, there is even now the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit whose sweet fragrance dispels forever the sickening stench of the tomb.
How do we come to identify with Lazarus? Is it by an exercise of imagination? Is it by a trick of the intelligence? Is it the effect of overheated emotions or pious sentimentality? The liturgy, let it be said once and for all, deals not in sentimentality, but in reality! The reality of Lazarus, dead and four days in the tomb, discloses to us the horror — and the glory — of our own reality. The sacraments constitute the ultimate reality concealed and revealed in sacred signs, in matter perceptible to the senses yet charged with the divinizing energies of the Holy Ghost.
Christ, True God and True Man
The Gospel of the resurrection of Lazarus has, from the beginning, captivated the attention of the Church. As man, Christ the friend loved Lazarus with the tenderness of human affection; as God, Christ the Redeemer loves him with the indefectible charity of the Father and the Holy Ghost. As man, Christ shudders to hear of His friend’s illness; as God, Christ rejoices, saying, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of man may be glorified by it” (Jn 11:4). As man, Christ was deeply moved in spirit and wept over the friend He loved (Jn 11:33-35); as God, He grieved over a humanity held in death’s cold grip and infecting all creation with the stench of evil. As man, Christ asked, “Where have you laid him?” (Jn 11:34); as the God whose gaze searches the heavens and probes the depths of the earth, He already knew. As man, Christ stood before the stone-sealed tomb and shuddered; as God, He “cried out with a loud voice” (Jn 11:43), a voice that caused Hades to tremble, that shook the power of the Enemy, that overturned the infernal abodes.
Lazarus, Come Forth!
The Communion Antiphon of today’s Mass is, without any doubt, one of the most powerful marriages of text and melody found in the repertoire of Catholic worship. “When the Lord saw the sisters of Lazarus in tears near the tomb, He wept in the presence of the Jews and cried, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ And out he came, hands and feet bound, the man who had been dead for four days” (Jn 11: 33, 35, 43, 39). All description of it falls short; one must hear this text repeated again and again as the faithful make their way to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Better yet, one must sing it allowing it to impress and express the power of Christ calling each us out of the tomb. “Lazare, veni foras! — Lazarus, come forth!”
Out of Darkness
Today, here and now, as we receive His life-giving Body and Blood, Christ stands fearless before the tomb of our lives, calling us forth, summoning us out of darkness and the stench of death into the brightness and fragrance of life with Him, facing the Father, in the Holy Spirit. “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn 11:44) is His command to the ministering Church, that those delivered from the grave may live unfettered and free in the light of day.
The words of Saint Paul are eucharistically fulfilled. “If Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit Who dwells in you” (Rom 8:9-11).
The Most Holy Eucharist
Let us know ourselves to be Lazarus that we might know Christ as the Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:25). Already, the altar beckons; by the stone of the altar are we freed from the stone tomb. The Most Holy Eucharist is Christ in us. The Most Holy Eucharist is every spirit vivified in the righteousness of Christ Who alone is holy, Who alone is Lord. The Most Holy Eucharist is the gift of the Spirit; the Most Holy Eucharist is the pledge of resurrection; the Most Holy Eucharist is the fragrance of life dispelling the stench of death; the Most Holy Eucharist is the song of victory emerging “out of the depths” (Ps 130:1) to fill the heavens and the earth with glory. “The teacher is here and is calling for you” (Jn 11:28). Like Mary of Bethany, let us rise quickly and go to Him.